Ryanair claws back passenger traffic

Airline makes up for decline in Spain with strong growth in first four months of year

A Ryanair flight takes off from El Prat airport in Barcelona.
A Ryanair flight takes off from El Prat airport in Barcelona.JOAN SÁNCHEZ

After watching rival airline Vueling eat into its lead in 2014, low-cost carrier Ryanair began 2015 on the offensive, exhibiting unrivaled growth of 17.8% in passenger traffic.

Only Iberia Express, at 17.7%, comes close to growing as fast as the Irish company. By business group, however, the top position is claimed by IAG, the holding company that encompasses Spanish airlines Iberia, Iberia Express and Vueling, and the UK’s British Airways.

The self-styled “no-frills” budget carrier decided to reopen routes and increase frequencies, while focusing on major airports such as Madrid and Barcelona

AENA, the Spanish airports operator, has just released traffic figures for the first four months of the year – including the Easter holiday, a peak travel period. They show that Ryanair is determined to consolidate its advantage.

In 2014, the company headed by Michael O’Leary lost 0.4% of traffic in Spain while Vueling grew 16%; Norwegian expanded by 45%, while Germanwings saw traffic grow by a massive 68%.

In response, the self-styled “no-frills” budget carrier decided to reopen routes and increase frequencies, while focusing on major airports such as Madrid and Barcelona, and dropping smaller cities.

Ryanair grows in Barajas


Adolfo Suárez Madrid-Barajas Airport, a traditional bastion for Iberia, has become the main engine of growth for Ryanair in Spain. The Irish airline carried 1.54 million passengers to and from the Spanish capital in the first four months of 2015, according to AENA figures. This represents growth of 34% in a year. Most of this expansion is fueled by a rise in international traffic. Still, the Iberia group continues to dominate Barajas, with combined passenger traffic of 4.7 million between Iberia and Iberia Express.

Ryanair also changed some of its most unpopular policies, with the goal of ingratiating itself with customers once more: passengers are now allowed to choose a seat ahead of time, rather than have to make a sprint for the aircraft, and a second item of hand luggage is allowed on board.

The new guidelines are already having an effect. In the first four months of 2015, Ryanair added 1.14 million passengers, growing 17.8% to 7.5 million. During this period, the Irish airline has increased it lead over Vueling by more than 800,000 passengers.

It bears noting that these figures log the number of passengers regardless of the distance covered, a fact that somewhat penalizes airlines that cover long-haul routes.

Meanwhile, Air Europa continues to grow at a similar rate as last year, while easyJet is still losing its share in the Spanish market. Germanwings posted some of the strongest growth in early 2015, but the rate slowed down sharply in April, following the tragic crash in the Alps, caused when a German co-pilot from the airline deliberately flew his plane into a mountainside in France, killing all 150 people on board.

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Overall, low-cost airlines are attracting much of the new passenger traffic at Spanish airports. International arrivals grew 5.8% to 18.1 million people between January and April. Of these, nearly half (47.5%) arrived on budget flights.

British nationals represent the largest portion of international low-cost arrivals in Spain, making up 33.2% of the total. Catalonia is the favorite destination for 29.8% of tourists on low-cost flights.

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